Essays and Criticism
The Metaphor of the Tambourine
In Langston Hughes’s Tambourines to Glory, the tambourine is used as a major metaphor in the story. The metaphor starts with the realization of the double use of the tambourine. First, the musical instrument is used as an inexpensive and simple accompaniment to street-corner singing, a way to help attract a crowd and keep that crowd involved. But once the crowd is roused, the tambourine then takes on a different meaning as it is turned upside down and passed around much like a beggar’s bowl, into which donations are dropped and then carried away. This is the beginning of the metaphor, but it goes a lot deeper when one realizes the similarities between the tambourine’s two different sides and the two main female characters of this story.
Essie and Laura are women on the edge. They live in tight quarters on a tight budget. And when a brilliant idea about an easy way of making money crosses Laura’s mind, she quickly convinces Essie that it could be their ticket out of poverty. “Say, Essie, why don’t you and me start a church.” Essie can sing and Laura knows how to preach. What more could they need? And with this, the two women, whom Hughes patiently describes as two different sides of a similar coin, set off to convert their neighborhood. Their motives may have been somewhat related to each other at the beginning of their venture but as the story develops, it is their expanding differences that stretch them far apart, inevitably forcing their connection to snap.
Essie is a pious woman, innocent and full of love. And when she sings, people stop to listen and eventually join in. Essie is the musical side of the tambourine. Her rhythm is smooth and steady. And the songs she sings are soothing and uplifting. She makes the people around her want to forget their troubles, turn their hearts to God, and believe. Sinners repent, and the psychologically wounded begin to heal. As musical as Essie is, she is like the tambourine in another way too. She needs to be played. She sits all day, alone in her apartment, doing nothing to better herself. She is lonesome but does nothing to ease that pain. She misses her daughter, but does not work toward bringing her child to her. She just sits in a corner and collects dust. Without Laura prompting her, like someone gently beating a hand against the skin of the tambourine, no one would hear Essie’s music. Nothing new would happen in Essie’s life. Someone needs to pick her up, turn her around, and pump the music out of her.
Laura is the motivator. “You God’s handmaiden,” Essie tells Laura, “even if you do not always act like a holy maiden do.” But Laura is also the open, cupped hand. No matter what she does, she is always asking someone to help her. It is not that she is incapable of taking care of herself, but she is better at prompting others to nourish her. She eats at Essie’s house. She sleeps with men who buy her presents. And when she begins to preach, it is not redemption of lost souls that she is seeking. She preaches to make people believe that in giving her money they will be saved. Laura is manipulative and uncaring and hollow. Whereas Essie is open and honest, Laura always has a scheme. Laura is the tambourine turned on its head. People look at the tambourine, and they see an instrument of music, so they do not question the emptiness of the “bowl” formed by the underside of the tambourine. They listen to Laura and think they are hearing the music of God talking to them. In gratitude for inspiring them, they dig into their pockets when Laura passes through the crowd with her concave tambourine, and they do their best to fill it up. At first, only nickels and dimes drop into the tambourine. But as time goes by, that tambourine’s appetite increases. The more Laura gets, the more she wants. There is one big difference, however, between a real tambourine and Laura. Whereas the real tambourine has a finite capacity, Laura’s greed is endless.
The title of Hughes’s novel uses the plural form of the word tambourine despite the fact that the main characters of this story own only one tambourine. They start out with one tambourine and one bible. So why does Hughes use the plural form? What other tambourine is he referring to? Maybe he uses the concept of more than one tambourine to exemplify the differences in the two main characters, anticipating the eventual split between Essie and Laura at the end of the novel. And if this is so, then his meaning of glory more than likely reflects two different definitions.
Essie is one type of tambourine, and because her tambourine differs from Laura’s, the version of glory that she represents is most likely defined in different terms. Glory for Essie implies...
(The entire section is 1935 words.)